For all that they're in a rush right now, he can't help noticing how much his view is different, these days. He spends most of his time in his lucky cat vessel, round and earthy and very, very short. It’s an entirely different angle than he’d been used to, a handful of decades and a lifetime ago. He blinks the vessel’s golden eyes and turns its bulbous head. And he watches.
“Natsume. Carry me.”
Pale hands scoop him up and hold him snug to a bony chest. Madara wiggles a little, getting comfortable. He had forgotten, until he’d met Natsume, just how warm humans can be. Most yokai run cold, whether they be skin or fur or feathers or something else entirely, but Natsume radiates heat. Such an odd feeling, but he’s gotten used to it, over the past few years.
From here, Madara has a better view of the road ahead, devoid of animals and yokai alike. Someone up ahead of them is screaming. It’s a shrill, agonized wail that goes on and on, without any pause for breath. They’ve been following the sound for almost an hour now. It’s getting louder.
Natsume quickens his pace and tightens his grip around Madara’s middle.
The birds had been the ones who came to them, this time around. Little wisps of yokai, hardly more than a mouthful of feathers, sitting on Natsume’s windowsill and trilling for his help. An exorcist had stolen something from a wind spirit, they said, and she’d gone mad and started attacking everyone in sight, animals and yokai and humans alike.
Natsume’s face had pinched at the word “exorcist.” Of course he agreed to help. He always did. The boy’s too soft.
Too soft, too sensitive, too weak. For all the power he packed when he swung his fists, the tiniest of spells still left him exhausted. Madara does not know why. Perhaps he is simply defective.
(“You could eat him,” Hinoe had said when he’d complained to her, as if they both didn't know that she'd steal the boy away from him before letting him be harmed. She'd given him a teasing smile and blown smoke into his face. Irritated, he’d snapped back, “I’ve thought about it,” and Hinoe had giggled at him with a knowing look in her eyes.
They'd both rather have a defective Natsume than no Natsume at all.)
The wind spirit’s screams are loud enough to hurt now. Madara flattens his vessel’s ears back against his head. It doesn’t help much, but the stubby legs won’t reach high enough to cover his ears with his paws. Natsume starts running.
They break through the woods into a large clearing, full of dappled sunlight and a small gathering of humans. Natsume opens his mouth to shout—not that they would hear him, over the wind spirit’s howls—when a dark, rubbery arm snatches him right off the ground.
Ah. That explains it.
Matoba stands in the clearing with Nanase and some of his clan, but they haven't noticed Madara and Natsume yet. Their attention is focused on the wind spirit writhing above their heads. Her scream gets louder. She dives down toward them, but seems unable to grasp them. The gusts from her passage knock over some of the lesser exorcists. Matoba and Nanase stand unaffected. They look vaguely bored.
Natsume keeps flailing at the artificial servant. He keeps one hand around Madara and swings the other one around wildly, trying to hit their captor.
Madara sighs. “Don’t say I never do anything for you,” he mutters, and fastens his vessel’s sharp teeth on the servant’s wrist.
The taste is foul, and he knows it isn’t going to do much damage, but it has the desired effect. The false yokai cocks its head, stares at him in puzzlement, and starts waving its arm around, trying to shake him off. This loosens its grip on Natsume, who falls to the ground and sprints toward the cluster of exorcists.
The servant stares after him, its simple mind trying to figure out what had happened. Then it goes back to shaking its arm. It waves Madara back and forth, upside down and sideways. He sighs again. This is very undignified, but he needs to keep this brute distracted until Natsume is clear. He digs his back paws into the creature’s greasy flesh, trying to hang onto it.
Suddenly there is a bright flash of light, and a crack like a single piece of pottery breaking in half. Then sudden silence, shockingly intense compared to the previous noise.
It is at that moment, naturally, that the servant manages to blindly smash him against a tree. He does not lose consciousness, of course, because even in this vessel, he is Lord Madara, and he is powerful. Lord Madara does not lose consciousness. But the world does go a little black and wobbly at the edges, and when he opens his eyes, the figures in the clearing are in different places than before.
How long has Natsume been screaming? The boy's voice is laced with anger and and pain. Pain? Madara's hackles go up. He struggles to his feet and gallops across the clearing. How dare anyone hurt his prey?
This is what he sees when he reaches the others:
Most of the exorcists lie scattered around the clearing in various states of disarray. Even Nanase looks ruffled. Matoba himself leans on his umbrella like a cane, looking down at Natsume.
Natsume’s on his knees, clutching his hands to his chest. The ground around him is charred and bare of vegetation. He’s staring up at the wind spirit above his head.
No. At the two wind spirits. It’s difficult to tell with just his eyes, but Madara can tastes a subtle difference in the air. The angry yokai from before, silent now, has been joined by another one. They swirl around Natsume, lean forward to brush his forehead and ruffle his hair, then leap into the sky as one. They race away with the speed of a storm wind and the desperate determination not to let the Matoba clan catch them again.
“How fascinating.” Matoba’s voice, silky like shadows. “You broke my seals with your bare hands? That shouldn’t be possible.”
It shouldn’t be. Madara reaches them, spares Matoba a wary glance. He puts his paws on Natsume’s knee. “Show me your hands.”
Natsume makes a pained noise. “I’m fine,” he insists. “The bird yokai told us something had been stolen from the wind spirit. It wasn’t something, Sensei. It was someone. They caught her sister, and then they used her as bait.”
“You’re such a trouble maker, Natsume,” Matoba says. “Of course we needed to look for the twin. You saw how much damage they can do when roused. They were much too close to human lands for us to ignore them."
Natsume glares at him. "They're gone now," he grits out. "Leave them be."
Madara flicks an ear. “Enough. You grabbed a live spell in your hands, Natsume. Show me.”
Natsume slowly lowers his hands away from his chest and tries to open his clenched fists. The fingers won’t quite straighten all the way. His hands are—
Madara hums. They’re bad, but not quite as bad as he had feared. The boy’s palms are red, and blisters are already forming, but when Madara leans forward, he can’t smell any damage beneath the skin’s surface. The burnt smell in the air is from the charred ground, not from the Natsume’s burns. “You’ll live,” he says.
Behind him, Matoba makes a sympathetic noise. “My goodness. Nanase, do we have any burn cream with us?”
“Of course,” she says. She bows and turns away.
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” Natsume says. He starts to get up, forgetfully bracing himself with one hand on the ground, and gasps in pain.
“I insist,” Matoba says. He grabs Natsume’s arm and heaves him to his feet.
Madara narrows his eyes. He moves a few steps over so that he can sit on Natsume’s feet. Natsume automatically bends down to pick him up, but stops this time before he can touch anything with his injured hands. He winces. “What will I tell my aunt and uncle?” he whispers, quiet so that Matoba can’t hear him.
Madara rocks his vessel’s body back and forth. “We’ll think of something.”
Nanase returns with a bottle of water, a tube of ointment, and clean bandages. Natsume holds his hands out awkwardly, hissing as Nanase pours the water over his palms. She dabs them dry with a soft cloth, wiping away a bit of blood, then smears the ointment liberally over the burns and wraps them in the bandages.
Natsume won’t look her in the eye, but he mumbles, “Thank you.”
“We should give you a ride home,” Matoba says. “You look a fright.”
He’s right. Natsume’s forehead is damp with sweat, and his face is tinged with the pale, grayish color that says he’s going to spend the next few days in bed.
Madara sighs. These people have seen his true form already. “He doesn’t need a ride home,” he says, and shifts. He bends down, looks the Matoba man in his eye, and bares his teeth. “I will carry him.”
“Oh,” Natsume says. He leans against Madara’s side, then manages to clamber onto his back without using his hands too much. “Thanks, Nyanko-sensei," he says, wrapping his arms around Madara’s neck.
“Well, it was just a friendly offer,” Matoba says. He doesn’t step away, but he doesn’t move forward, either. “You’re very impressive,” he says to Madara. “Not a very good bodyguard, though. Do call us if you need anything, Natsume. You have my card, I believe?”
Madara leaps into the air and lets that stand for his answer.
When they’re halfway home, and he’s begun to think Natsume has fallen asleep, the boy says, “I don’t think I’ll ever understand that guy.” He hugs Madara’s neck tighter. “Sorry for scaring you, Sensei.”
Madara looks back at him, then tosses his head. “I wasn’t worried,” he says. “It’d just be bad for my reputation if I let you get burned up by small fry like that.”
Natsume smiles and presses his face into Madara’s fur. Definitely asleep now.
Madara takes him to Tanuma’s, because he has no idea what sort of excuse a human couple will think is reasonable for a young human’s burned hands. The sun is setting when he reaches the old temple. He shifts into his vessel’s body to knock on the sliding doors outside Tanuma's bedroom.
Natsume wakes only slightly when Tanuma heaves him upright to carry him indoors. Tanuma fusses, tucks Natsume into his bed, puts some mochi on a plate for “Ponta,” calls the Fujiwaras. Natsume slips back to sleep while he’s still on the phone.
Madara climbs onto Natsume’s pillow and eats his mochi. The boy’s face is flushed beneath the damp cloth that Tanuma put on his forehead. His bandaged hands rest on top of the covers.
“Very bad for my reputation,” Madara murmurs.
He looks across the room to where the sliding doors have been left open to let in a breeze. Outside, the woods are calling. In the distance, he can hear yokai voices, raised in a cheer. There’s a sake spring not too far from here. There must be a party.
Gold eyes blink. He licks his paws clean of the last of the sticky mochi. Natsume is weak and vulnerable. He needs someone to keep watch.
Madara settles back into the pillow. And he watches.